U(2)

No, sorry, not as in U2 and good music, but the second part to my blog on sounds and spelling as requested by the majority of you (= four, possibly five). And to get the ball rolling, a recommendation from colleague and pronunciation expert Donna Brinton, who kindly reminded me of Adam Brown’s Understanding and Teaching English Spelling. Even though I don’t have a copy myself, I should have remembered this, as it’s obviously the place to go if you’re really interested in the subject. Many thanks, Donna.

Secondly, a summary of the sort of sound-spelling rules I referred to last week, most of which I came across in Kenworthy (1987), and which I think are still worth offering to students. But before I do that, I think it is also worth sharing certain features of the sound-spelling relationships of English that Kenworthy and other experts (Avery & Ehrlich, 1992; Celce-Murcia, Brinton & Goodwin, 1996) have pointed out over the years:

Feature 1: the English writing system is alphabetic. Obvious this one, but as teachers we need to have a bit of sympathy for students coming to English from non-alphabetic languages, or from languages which are alphabetic, but which have a one-to-one relationship between sounds and spelling, or in which the same letter as in English is pronounced differently in the learner’s mother tongue.

Feature 2: English spelling is tied as much to the meaning of a word as it is to its pronunciation, if not more. Thus the words ‘sign’ and ‘signal’ (I’m using Kenworthy’s examples, as I am going to do throughout to save time) are lexically related despite the very different pronunciations of the letter ‘i’. This relationship works in the other direction – although ‘rough’ and ‘ruff’ are pronounced the same, the spelling shows that they are clearly unrelated.

There is a relationship between spelling and grammar, too. The ‘ed’ digraph, for example, always marks the regular past simple ending despite its three pronunciations. Once you understand this feature, you see a lot more regularity than if you only relate spelling to sound.

Feature 3: Sometimes two or more letters of the alphabet come together to make a written representation of a sound, as in the combination ‘ph’, which makes the sound /f/ in ‘physics’ or ‘photograph’.

Feature 4: Sometimes a letter signals something about the pronunciation of another letter but has no value itself. The final ‘e’, for example, has a regular and significant effect on the pronunciation of the preceding vowel letter in a word. Thus, the ‘e’ in Pete and the ‘e’ in pet are pronounced completely differently.

Feature 5: The position of letters in a word is very important. George Bernard Shaw is attributed with saying that the word ‘fish’ could equally be spelt as ghoti given the pronunciation of the ‘gh’ in rough, the ‘o’ in women, and the ‘ti’ in nation. But this is not completely true; the letters ‘gh’ can only represent the sound /f/ when they come at the end of a word.


But enough are features, and on to rules, which, as with the features above, are summaries of what Kenworthy published back in the late 80s, but still work today (surprise!):

Rule 1: Many consonant letters have only one sound value.

These include the letters d, f, j, m, n, p, r, t, v, x, y, and z. In addition, b, h, k, l, and w also represent a single sound, except when they are not sounded (that is are ‘silent’).

Rule 2: The letters ‘c’ and ‘g’ have two sound values.

The letter ‘c’ represents the sound /k/ unless it is followed by ‘e’, ‘i’, or ‘y’, in which case it is pronounced /s/. Compare ‘cap’, ‘cop’ or ‘cup’, for example, with ‘ceiling’, ‘city’ and ‘infancy’.

The same rule applies to the letter ‘g’ which is /g/ in ‘gave’, ‘go’ or ‘gun’, but /dʒ/ in ‘gene’ or ‘gin’. OK, ‘get’, ‘girl’, ‘give’ and one or two more common words are exceptions, but I suspect that many languages are like that, with exceptions surfacing most in the commonest words. Mentally, then, learners can handle exceptions far better than I think we sometimes realise.

Rule 3: When single consonants letters are doubled in English, they keep the same sound value.

This is the case with ‘cc’, ‘bb’, ‘dd’, ‘ff’, ‘gg’, ‘ll’, ‘nn’, ‘pp’, ‘rr’, ‘ss’, ‘tt’, and ‘zz’. Yes, I know. As with Rule 2, there are exceptions. But the fact is that there aren’t that many, and like all exceptions, put them to use. Get students to collect them. Make a class board displaying them. Exceptions are examples of a rule. Working with them can serve to reinforce the rule. Think positive!

Rule 4: Two or three consonant letters can represent one sound.

The composite consonant letters ‘ck’, ‘le’, ‘ng’, ‘tch’, ‘wh’, ‘ph’, ‘sh’ and ‘qu’ all represent a single sound (Homework: find two examples of each pair of composite letters. Answers in the comment box bellow by Friday evening). In addition:

  • ‘ck’, ‘le’, ‘och’ and ‘ng’ never occur at the beginning of words
  • ‘qu’ and ‘wh’ never occur at the end of words
  • ‘ph’ and ‘sh’ can occur at the beginning or end of words

I’m actually missing ‘ght’ from Kenworthy’s Rule 4. I can think of a load of common vocabulary ending in this combination as in ‘night’, ‘flight’, weight’, ‘caught’, and so on. Can you think of any exceptions? And can you imagine what it must be like trying to pronounce words ending in ‘ght’ if you come from a language that pronounces all written letters?

Rule 5: Each of the single vowel letters has two principal sound values.

OK, now it’s going to get messy! We’re entering the world of vowel letters and vowel sounds, with only 5 letters for twenty or so sounds (‘or so’ = depending on your accent). But before it gets messy, try giving your students at least something solid. A lighthouse in a storm doesn’t make the waves any smaller, but it is something to hang on to, and is a good alternative to drowning.

In terms of vowel letters and spelling, something simple to hold on to is the fact that each of the individual vowel letters has two pronunciations:

LetterSound 1 (= long = alphabet name)Sound 2 (= short = relative sound)
a/eɪ/ as in ‘hate’/æ/ as in ‘hat’
e/iː/ as in ‘Pete’/e/ as in ‘pet’
i/aɪ/ as in ‘wine’/ɪ/ as in ‘win’
o/oʊ/ as in ‘note’/ɒ/ as in ‘not’
u/ju/ as in ‘cute’/ʌ/ as in ‘cut’

Sound 1 was summed up for us as kids at school by the rule ‘When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.’. This was the rule for young learners, and is still used by teachers today from what I can see from the internet. But it can easily be adapted to older students, or they can be given enough sample words and be asked to work out what is happening in a rule discovery activity.

Judy Gilbert, for example, in her excellent Clear Speech (2012), leads older learners to her Two Vowel Rule and then the related One Vowel Rule. Doing this equips them with simple rules that cover a huge number of common vocabulary items – over 90% in each case.

From Clear Speech (2012: 12)

From Clear Speech (2012: 14)

The One Vowel Rule, by the way, works for any stressed syllable with a CVC structure. So ‘i’ has its short, relative sound pronunciation in ‘thin’ and ‘thinner’. In fact, a lot of the dreaded doubling of consonants in English spelling is actually a reflection of the pronunciation. Think about ‘dine’, diner’ and ‘dinner’. Which has the CVC sequence? And which has the ‘i’ that rhymes with ‘him’? And which tea party did Alice go to? The mad-hatter’s or the mad-hater’s?

OK, so far we are dealing with single vowels, or with ‘unexceptional’ examples of vowel digraphs. When we start looking at digraphs such as ‘au’, ‘aw’, ‘ea’, ‘ee’, ei’, and so on, things do get messier, and it may be productive here to introduce one or two IPA symbols just to give learners an image to hang on to as they try to memorise a sound their mother-tongue may not have. However, the policy of teaching students the commonest sounds for each of these digraphs (what Kenworthy calls the Major value), is surely a lot more useful than shrugging your shoulders as I did for far too long, and excusing your poor teaching with the feeble ‘English is really crazy, isn’t it?’.

Well, is it or isn’t it? Answers on a postcard addressed to me at: The House on the Hill, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Somewhere Over the Mountain, RU12 4UR.

Further reading

Avery, P., & Ehrlich, S. (1992). Teaching American English Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, A. (2019). Understanding and Teaching English Spelling. Abingdon: Routledge.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilbert, J. (2012). Clear Speech. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

2 thoughts on “U(2)

  1. Great advice, Robin! The message is clear. Like the best climbs, spelling is a challenge but working together we can get there with our learners, and the view from the top is great.

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